Friends spread awareness about methanol poisoning after UNCW student’s death

21 Year old Ryan Turney died in September 2018 of methanol poisoning (Source WBTV)
21 Year old Ryan Turney died in September 2018 of methanol poisoning (Source WBTV)
Updated: Mar. 7, 2019 at 5:42 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Ryan Turney was a gallivanter.

His family said he had visited 48 states and five continents. An international studies major at UNCW, the senior was indeed a jet-setter.

In September 2018, 21-year-old Turney went to Vietnam to visit friends, had a few drinks and that’s when everything changed.

“He was studying in Thailand when he took a trip to Vietnam, and that’s when he passed away,” said Lucy Coppola, one of Turney’s friends at UNCW.

Coppola said Turney woke up complaining of a headache, nausea and blurred vision on Sept. 23. He went to a hospital, where he was given an IV.

While in the hospital, Turney got up to use the bathroom, collapsed and went into cardiac arrest.

He died moments later.

Turney’s parents say doctors believe methanol in a drink their son had is what killed him.

“We were shocked. We had never heard of this danger, never heard of methanol poisoning,” Coppola said. “Then, after doing some research, we were more shocked to learn how prevalent it is in different regions through the world.”

Ryan Turney with best friend Lucy Coppola (Source: Lucy Coppola)
Ryan Turney with best friend Lucy Coppola (Source: Lucy Coppola)

According to the Methanol Institute, the chemical is often deliberately and illegally added to alcoholic beverages as a cheaper alternative to ethanol — normal alcohol that can be consumed — in countries where regulations are not as stiff.

It is not common in the United States but is an issue in places like Mexico and Asia. Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulty, blurred vision, and seizures. Symptoms don’t appear until about 12-24 hours after consuming what is known as bootleg alcohol.

“Ryan would want awareness to spread to prevent other families from enduring tragedy,” said Coppola, who is on a mission to spread information on the dangers of methanol poisoning as students at UNCW will soon embark on spring break. "I just think it’s important we get this message out now to college students because this alcohol is cheaper, and they are more vulnerable.”

Through social media and stopping people in hallways to ask them if they know about methanol, Coppola is doing all she can to honor her friend and prevent this from happening to her fellow Seahawks.

“Ryan couldn’t stand to see people in pain or sad or hurting so Ryan would really be passionate about getting this message out,” she said.

UNCW is also doing its part in the wake of Turney’s death. The office of international programs updated its education materials for students traveling abroad and going through orientation. A section on methanol poisoning is now included in the study abroad handbook.

Chief Communications Officer Janine Iamunno also said a methanol specific slide was added to a pre-trip orientation presentation. Immauno said in an email the office of international programs also met with student health counselors in January to learn more about any emerging issues.

The World Health Organization recommends these prevention and control measures:

  • Refrain from purchasing or producing illegal alcoholic drinks.
  • Be suspicious about alcoholic drinks offered for sale in informal settings that are not licensed to sell alcohol, e.g. market stalls, and/or that are offered at a cheap price.
  • Do not buy alcoholic drinks sold in unlabelled containers.
  • Check branded products for labels that are poorly printed or with typographical errors, or bottles with broken seals. Do not buy these.

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